Wagner boss Prigozhin is going off the rails in Ukraine, and Putin may not have much choice but to let him, war expert says
Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, is ranting at military leaders and even taking what looked like a veiled shot at Putin.
Putin plays his factions off one another, which can fuel their anger. That fury has come out publicly.
The Russian leader can’t afford to target Prigozhin, but the Kremlin has other ways to keep him in check, a war expert said.
The tide has turned against Russian mercenaries in the Ukraine war’s fiercest battle, and their boss is going off the rails.
He has ripped into top military leaders, even taken what looked like a veiled shot at the Russian president, and he has made shocking threats to withdraw his troops and to release details of Russian military failures if his forces don’t get the ammo they need. Though he doesn’t follow through, his rhetoric and actions are unbelievable. Russians have ended up dead or in prison for far less.
The taunts and tirades of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the paramilitary Wagner Group who has become one of Russia’s most prominent voices in the conflict, are increasingly laying bare rifts and apparent problems in the war effort and risking undermining his political benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But it is Putin that created this mess, and the Russian leader may not have much choice but to let it play out, according to Institute for the Study of War analyst Kateryna Stepanenko, an expert on the Russian military.
“He sets up a very toxic environment where he only allows one faction to capture his attention at a time,” Stepanenko said of Putin. “He switches between teams, and that forces the two factions to compete against each other,” she said, pointing out that all the while he dangles the “hope” that those who disappoint can somehow regain their status.
At the moment, the Russian leader appears to be siding with the defense ministry, which oversees the vast majority of the troops and has come under harsh criticism for bungled operations.
Putin’s shift from a higher level of earlier support for Wagner seems to be fueling Prigozhin’s anger as he works to achieve his own ambitions, rumored now to be political, and his influence wanes. Though he strikes hardest at the defense ministry, he has seemingly aimed his frustrations at Putin as well.
Prigozhin’s endless fury
Wagner’s forces have played a crucial role in Russian combat operations in Ukraine, which allowed Prigozhin to expand the group at the expense of Russian military resources and push command decisions to Putin directly, often bypassing the defense ministry. But for months now, the mercenary forces, including Wagner’s army of convicts, have been bogged down in the battle for Bakhmut, a horrific high-casualty fight.
During the intense fighting in Bakhmut, where the mercenaries have suffered tremendous losses, simmering tensions between the Russian defense ministry and the Wagner boss have boiled over. With the replacement of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, an infamous Russian leader pushed by ultranationalists like Prigozhin, in January, the Russian defense ministry retook control.
Prigozhin, a financier for the notorious paramilitary company and long-time Putin ally, has posted videos showing piles of Wagner corpses as he blasts Russian military leadership, specifically Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Surovikin’s replacement and the latest commander of Russian operations in Ukraine. Under this leadership, support for Wagner has drastically declined, infuriating Prigozhin.
He blames them for the “shell hunger,” as he calls the lack of ammunition and essential supplies for his forces, that he sees costing the lives of the men in his company. The situation got so bad for Wagner at one point that expert observers speculated that the Russian military was purposefully decimating the group.
More recently, as the problems persisted for Wagner, Prigozhin threatened to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut, a bold threat that he later walked back after purportedly securing a promise to deliver the necessary ammunition from Russia’s defense ministry.
Beyond potentially jeopardizing operations around Bakhmut, the Institute for the Study of War wrote in a recent update on the war in Ukraine that “chain of command problems” caused by irregular commanders like Prigozhin seems to be “having a significant impact on the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theater-wide operations.”
Prigozhin said he was threatened with treason over his assertions that Wagner forces would pull out of Bakhmut. That threat hasn’t slowed him down or curbed his rants though.
When his forces did not receive the promised supplies and ammunition, Prigozhin posted a video threatening to release details of Russia’s military failings if he didn’t get ammo. He also mocked the Russian victory parade, and he seemingly hinted that Putin, though the mercenary boss doesn’t criticize him by name, might not be a kind “grandfather” but rather a “complete asshole.” He later said he wasn’t talking about Putin.
It is not clear if the ammunition problems, which ISW’s Stepanenko suspects Putin likely permitted as the Russian military conserves ammunition ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, was ever resolved, but it does look like the Russian leader may be letting his commanders spar for influence.
“He is definitely pitting those two factions against one another,” Stepanenko said of Putin’s manipulation of Wagner and the defense ministry, adding that Putin “likely allowed the Russian Ministry of Defense to stop providing Wagner with shells in Bakhmut,” the issue at the heart of much of the recent infighting.
“Putin,” she said, “is definitely the mastermind that juggles the two of them.”
But, even if Prigozhin’s concerns might have merit, a question lingers: How can he say what he does without consequence? And he’s not the only one in this situation. Former FSB officer Igor Girkin is another outspoken nationalist who is currently somewhere in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“It’s obviously a longstanding question,” Stepanenko said. “Why are they able to do so when Russia is so repressive and is able to suppress any protests, arrest so many of the opposition leaders, and so on?”
Putin can’t risk upsetting his ultranationalist allies
“These ultranationalists, such as Prigozhin, serve as a source of recruitment for force generation efforts for Putin,” who desperately wants to avoid another mobilization, which previously led to substantial discontent within Russian society, she explained.
Prigozhin is a leading figure in the Russian ultranationalist network, which is a source of recruits and has a firm grip on key parts of the online information space in Russia. As the Wagner Group’s head, he has promoted its culture of extreme violence as symbolized in a sledgehammer, a reference to the execution method for Wagner deserters.
“Putin does not want to upset the ultranationalist community,” Stepanenko said.
“He cannot just simply kill Prigozhin and expect that not to trigger some sort of reaction,” she said. “He, of course, could, but that would undermine his appeal to the nationalists, who are the only people that are so inherently invested in his ideology and his belief in this war.”
Russia has created a tightly controlled information space by closely managing television, press, and radio and limiting social media platforms in the country, but in the remaining social media spaces, which are less restricted, the ultranationalists have found a place to share both information and disinformation on this war.
“Imagine if Putin decides to kill Prigozhin and frame it as an accident, that aspect of the information space is going to explode,” Stepanenko said. Prigozhin knows how to weaponize information, and the nature of these spaces has been carefully crafted for a purpose.
Even amid the ranting, Prigozhin has demonstrated a cautiousness at times, clearly self-censoring to some degree when it comes to Putin, perhaps not wanting to completely severe those ties because there is a potential point where he risks becoming more hassle than he is helpful, especially if his value declines.
“Prigozhin still holds some value if he’s able to operate,” Stepanenko said. “I don’t know how long that value is going to continue, if he’s going to be able to retain that authority after his forces are fully depleted or have to go through reconstitution, or if his recruitment rates fall down through Russia and Wagner is no longer an appealing private military company.”
At that point, Putin could opt to replace Prigozhin. Russia has already opened the door to new private military companies, which may be part of a play to de-emphasize Wagner.
Notably though, Putin, as ISW noticed in a recent analysis of command changes, doesn’t really fire anyone.
“Instead, he kind of rotates them out and then sends them to Syria” or somewhere else “despite major military failures on the battlefield,” Stepanenko said. “I feel like that kind of approach that Putin takes also applies to the way he see Prigozhin.”
“I think that Putin’s way of leadership is he never really wants someone to fully hate him,” she said. “Putin’s approach is different in the sense that he gives hope. He gives hope that one day you can come back to power, one day can be heard, or one day you can impress enough to regain your position.”
But even if Putin can’t really punish Prigozhin right now, an important part of why Russian leadership may tolerate outbursts by ultranationalists like Prigozhin is that the Kremlin recognizes that these leaders are not independent of it and that they require support to function.
Recent independent Russian media interviews with officials indicate that “the reason Prigozhin and all of these ultranationalists are allowed to operate is because the Kremlin really thinks that they’re able to control them,” Stepanenko said.
As Prigozhin makes one move, the Kremlin makes another, such as allowing the rationing of shells at his and his forces’ expense or cutting off his access to the recruitment of prisoners.
The Kremlin is “thinking they can tolerate this because these ultranationalist figures, like Prigozhin, Girkin, and so on, they rely on some sort of supplies, military provision from the government, she said. “I think the Kremlin is playing that up right now.” For now, though, the feuding and fighting continues.
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